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Nature Conservancy Magazine: Autumn 2010

Fish and Tradition

Story Highlights
  • The Pacific island nation of Pohnpei relies heavily on its natural resources, but fish stocks have begun to decline.
  • Many Pohnpeians have turned to illegally fishing in protected waters.
  • Learn how The Nature Conservancy is supporting efforts by traditional chiefs to enforce restrictions aimed at reviving fisheries.
“After the fishermen told their story, the chiefs reminded them and everyone about their collective responsibility over the natural resources in the community.”

Ricky Carl, a native Pohnpeian and the Conservancy’s deputy director of external affairs


By  Danielle Furlich

Nahnihd does his best to be unpredictable. The man who watches over the Nahtik Marine Sanctuary — an underwater stretch of 160 coral-studded acres near Pohnpei, the Pacific island where the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia resides — comes at odd times of day or, more often, night. That way, poachers don’t know when he might be there.

Positioned on a bamboo raft moored at the sanctuary’s edge, Nahnihd listens for the motorized skiffs of poachers. Even in the dark of night, he can tell whether the boats are stopping in the sanctuary or outside it by listening to the motors.

When he is not monitoring the protected waters of Nahtik, Nahnihd too, makes his living as a fisherman. Fishing is a way of life for most people here; even those who don’t fish full-time still work the ocean occasionally to put dinner on the table or supplement their family’s income. In a culture where people gather for communal feasts to mark special events, fishing is even protected by the Pohnpei constitution: The document grants an exception to some fishing restrictions if the fisherman’s purpose is to provide food for a cultural obligation.

But such longstanding fishing traditions, based on centuries of plenty, are now running into a modern-day dilemma: Under growing pressure, the island’s fish stocks have begun to decline. And as fish have become more difficult to catch, many islanders have turned to illegally fishing in newly protected waters like the Nahtik sanctuary.

In generations past, individual village chiefs would have decided how and when to close local fishing grounds, and it would have fallen to them to deal with any violators. But it has been decades since the chiefs wielded that power. These days, people expect Pohnpei’s Western-style state government to regulate fisheries and protect ocean sanctuaries.

The government, however, has done little to enforce fishing restrictions. In fact, in 2006, even the then-governor of Pohnpei was caught poaching in the Nahtik sanctuary.

Afterward, the legislature partly dismantled enforcement efforts by clamping down on the patrol budget.

The tide may be turning, however. The governments of the five Micronesian nations — including the Federated States of Micronesia — have made public commitments to conserve key marine resources. At the state level, efforts are under way to create more ocean sanctuaries near Pohnpei.

And in Nahnihd’s own community, the traditional chiefs have begun to take matters into their own hands to protect marine sanctuaries. With the support of The Nature Conservancy and others, they are reaching back into Pohnpei’s past, reviving customs to manage fishing that their grandparents might recognize.

No one knows if these old traditions will still command respect in today’s Pohnpei. But if they do, Nahnihd and his neighbors may be able to revive their fishery — and inspire island communities across the Pacific to do the same.

Explore the island of Pohnpei in our photo slideshow.

A Common Problem

Pohnpei’s fish dilemma has been repeated with variations throughout the world’s fisheries. Countless island and coastal leaders have begun to recognize the importance of protecting their fisheries but have struggled with how to do so. 

Isolated from major landmasses and markets, island nations in the tropics often depend heavily on their natural resources, including coral reefs and the fish that live in them. In places like Pohnpei, a decline in the number of reef fish directly affects people’s diets, income and cultural traditions.

And that is what many Micronesians are now experiencing. According to recent studies, reef fish near populated islands throughout the region — which encompasses 617,000 square miles of ocean and more than 600 islands and atolls — show clear signs of overfishing. Where there are people, the large reef fish are mostly gone.

Yet the same studies found that in most other respects, Micronesia’s coral reef ecosystems largely appear diverse, healthy and resilient. Although global threats such as rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification are already under way, Micronesian nations for the moment still have an opportunity to safeguard the functioning marine systems that sustain their people. Indeed, this may be one of their last chances to prepare for environmental changes to come.

Recognizing that reality, the leaders of the five Micronesian nations in 2006 announced the Micronesia Challenge: Together, they promised to conserve 30 percent of near-shore waters and 20 percent of key lands in the region by 2020. International funders, nonprofit organizations and governments including Germany, Japan and the United States all responded with financial contributions to support the challenge.

The Conservancy pledged $3 million to the Micronesia Challenge. It also offered up its scientific expertise to help Micronesians save their fisheries — and the systems that support them — by creating networks of marine sanctuaries, or marine protected areas, as they are often called.

In a typical marine protected area, a government or community establishes a reserve — much like a park on land — and declares some portion of it as a no-take zone, where fishing is banned. Other zones may allow some carefully managed fishing, but at a rate that allows fish and other species to sustain themselves.

“The beauty of marine protected areas is that they allow the reefs and the fish to recover, and when there’s a heating event or some other kind of stress, they can resist better,” says Alan Friedlander, a leading fisheries ecologist at the University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Cooperative Fishery Research Unit. Moreover, protected reefs help support nearby unprotected areas with a spillover effect, he says, as healthy areas export young fish, corals and other resources. Although a marine protected area may limit a fisherman’s range, in the long run it will help fuel an increase in his catch, says Friedlander. “It’s a win-win situation,” he says.

If enough of these protected areas are strung together in a network, connected by currents and tides, then the entire system should be able to sustain itself over time. The healthy parts replenish the injured parts, and the whole survives.

Across the Pacific and the Caribbean, the Conservancy and partner organizations are devoting millions of dollars and thousands of hours to this strategy of creating networks of marine protected areas.

But there is a catch. It takes time, often years, for the numbers of fish and other species to bounce back after fishing restrictions take hold. And if the restrictions don’t hold — if people poach those protected waters — the promised rebound simply doesn’t happen.

Explore the island of Pohnpei in our photo slideshow.

We Were Fishing Too Much”

On a hot afternoon in August 2009, Nahnihd and his sons Isaac and Kalistus paddle out to the raft near the Nahtik sanctary. Already waiting for them on the raft is Soulik en Soamwoai, the traditional chief of Nahnihd’s village. His name is Epert Mihkel, but everyone calls him Soulik, a shorthand title and term denoting respect for village chiefs on the island. 

The raft is anchored about halfway between dense mangroves onshore and the sanctuary. Behind the mangroves lie Nahnihd’s village and three others, which together make up the community called Woaun Koapin Soamwai, known more informally as Enipein.

Nahnihd slices open a green coconut and hands it to Soulik to drink. Then he slices more for himself and his sons.

“When I was a kid,” Nahnihd says between sips of coconut water, “there used to be plenty of fish here because people just fished for their families and friends. But when people started needing more cash, they fished for money and they fished more and more.” Now people go spearfishing at night, when the fish are asleep, he says. Unfortunately, such an efficient fishing method just depletes the reefs faster.

“My father, who was himself a Soulik, told me we were fishing too much,” says Soulik, who teaches high school and holds a master’s degree in education. “He said we needed to leave the fish alone in certain areas so they would reproduce. And I’ve followed him.”

It was in part because of the concerns of leaders like Soulik, worried about the ever-greater efforts needed to catch fish, that the Pohnpei legislature in 1999 passed a law allowing for the creation of marine protected areas. In 2001 the community of Enipein was able to legally protect the waters of Nahtik and organize the reserve’s management under a local organization, Conservation Society of Pohnpei (CSP). It was a significant vote of confidence in CSP, which had been founded only three years earlier with the help of a $15,000 grant from the Conservancy.

When the reserve was established, Soulik and the other Enipein chiefs asked Nahnihd and a few other community members to watch over it as volunteer enforcers. All 160 acres were to be a no-take zone. The conservation society trained the volunteers to conduct fish counts four times a year to track progress toward restoring fish populations.

At the time there was talk of periodic state ranger patrols and rapid response to community reporting, says Bill Raynor, who directs the Conservancy’s conservation programs in Asia and the Pacific from his office on Pohnpei. But that government support didn’t materialize. Over time, he says, people’s support for the marine protected areas slowly began to fade.

Things began to look more hopeful in 2006 with the announcement of the Micronesia Challenge. Publicly at least, the government was promising to conserve areas like Nahtik. But the high-level commitments had yet to trickle down to state action. The same year, the then-governor was caught fishing in the sanctuary.

By 2007, Nahnihd and the other community conservation officers had worked with CSP and others to bolster their own monitoring patrol. With a small grant from the United Nations Development Programme, they built the bamboo raft, complete with roof, cooking area and outhouse. The raft enabled volunteers to watch over Nahtik comfortably, especially at night.

Poaching has decreased since the raft was put in place, says Nahnihd. But his volunteer team cannot constantly monitor the protected waters. He fears that poachers have been fishing in the sanctuary when the raft is empty.

Fish counts at Nahtik confirm his suspicions. The only improvement has been a slight increase in the number of small parrotfish, says Nahnihd. There are no snappers or groupers, and while there are plenty of goatfish, triggerfish and rabbitfish, most of them are juveniles too small to cover the palm of his hand.

In fact, a 2008 survey commissioned by CSP found that in Nahtik and two other reserves, there were fewer fish inside the reserve than in the surrounding waters.

“People are still convinced that there must be more fish inside than out just because they are reserves,” says Eugene Joseph, manager of CSP’s marine program and an author of the study. “At this rate, I think Pohnpei will run out of fish in fewer than 10 years if we don’t restrict fishing.”

Explore the island of Pohnpei in our photo slideshow.

Sea Change

“All over the world now, the big issue is enforcement,” says the Conservancy’s Raynor. “What’s happening at Nahtik is a good example of something that’s happening everywhere: A community gets enthusiastic about protecting its resources and gets a grant, but that enthusiasm isn’t enough to stop the poachers.”

The problem is more complex than simple government inaction, says his colleague Ricky Carl, a native Pohnpeian and the Conservancy’s deputy director of external affairs on the island. Fishing is part of life on Pohnpei. When it comes to keeping fishermen out of protected waters, Western-style regulations may not be the best tool for the job.

“In these villages, when such a violation occurs, everyone becomes a victim,” he says. “The legal system does not get to the root of the problem and cure the wrong but simply puts a dollar value, a fine, on a violation.”

Three years ago, that idea led Carl and colleagues at CSP and elsewhere to begin talking with traditional chiefs about a different approach. Would the chiefs be willing to use their authority to enforce restrictions aimed at reviving fisheries?

The Pohnpei constitution specifically protects the customs and traditions of traditional leaders, says Carl. Although marine protected areas have been considered a government responsibility, protecting fisheries certainly was a responsibility of Pohnpei’s chiefs for generations. In other parts of the Pacific, traditional leaders have reclaimed that role: In Palau, for example local chiefs have successfully enforced closures of some depleted fishing grounds.

The conversation took a more formal turn in July 2008, at a summit of Micronesia’s traditional leaders. There, the gathered chiefs adopted a Conservancy-drafted resolution that endorsed the Micronesia Challenge and specifically called on traditional leaders to help protect the regions’ natural resources.

What no one could know then was whether the chiefs would act on that resolution — and if they did so, whether anyone would heed them.

Explore the island of Pohnpei in our photo slideshow.

A New Tradition

In early 2010, Nahnihd learned that three fishermen had been caught red-handed working the protected waters of Nahtik. The men came from one of the villages within the Enipein community.

Nahnihd and Soulik began planning. Nahnihd went to the fishermen, the chiefs of the neighboring villages and others he thought should be involved in a discussion of the problems at the Nahtik sanctuary, including staff from the Conservancy and CSP, as well as state and local government officials. He asked everyone to attend a gathering at the community’s traditional house, or nahs. According to custom, the fishermen and their families were asked to provide food for all — a not-insignificant burden.

About 50 people gathered in the nahs on February 26, says Carl, who attended. The chiefs sat in front; everyone else sat on the sides facing them. Nahnihd explained how the violation was reported to him. The chiefs gave the fishermen an opportunity to explain why they should not be punished for their wrong. One by one, the men apologized and asked for forgiveness in front of family and community.

“After the fishermen told their story, the chiefs reminded them and everyone about their collective responsibility over the natural resources in the community,” says Carl. At the end of the hearing, the chiefs announced that this would be the manner in which they would deal with all natural-resource violations. The meeting ended with the sharing of sakau, a traditional beverage used in nearly all Pohnpeian ceremonies.

The next day, the fishermen helped with a community fish count organized by CSP as a way to demonstrate their commitment to the sanctuary’s success.

Bringing everyone together was an entirely Pohnpeian way to address the problem, says Carl.

“The violators were not viewed as criminals in the Western sense,” says Carl, “but as fishermen who know better but decided to do the wrong thing. They were shamed because they stain, if you will, the good reputation of fishermen in Pohnpei, who are looked upon as providers.”

A few weeks after the hearing, Pohnpei’s current governor — John Ehsa, a former board member of CSP — endorsed the chiefs’ action. In April, at his direction, the government transferred a new Yamaha outboard motor to Enipein for use in patrolling the Nahtik sanctuary.

Governor Ehsa says he is also considering new policies to govern Pohnpei’s fisheries, including restricting nighttime spearfishing and banning the harvest of juvenile fish.

Such government policies would complement the actions of the traditional chiefs, says Raynor. “We still want the state to take a stronger role,” he says. “There are threats that can’t be effectively handled by the traditional village institutions.” Having the traditional leaders and the government working cooperatively would give Pohnpei’s marine reserves the best protection.

But for now, he says, the entire island is talking about what happened in Enipein. “[Soulik] was courageous enough to try using traditional methods to deal with what was becoming a serious issue for his village. His gamble paid off, and I believe sets a precedent for traditional leaders in other parts of the island.” 

Explore the island of Pohnpei in our photo slideshow.

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